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10 bird species that need our help now

A Fatu Hiva Monarch tends a nest on the South Pacific island of Fatu Hiva. In 2017, only four pairs were thought to be breeding. Photo by Thomas Ghestemme/SOP Manu

Fatu Hiva Monarch

Where it lives: Fatu Hiva, Marquesas

Estimated population: 33

Island birds have it particularly tough. Approximately nine-tenths of modern bird extinctions happen on islands, mostly due to invasive species. In the Marquesas, a remote archipelago that’s part of French Polynesia, three bird species have gone extinct over the past century, and a fourth is likely extinct. The Fatu Hiva Monarch, meanwhile, is hanging on by a thread, having been decimated by the recent arrival of black rats, which eat their eggs and young.

To save the Fatu Hiva Monarch, a flycatcher found only on its namesake isle, local conservationists have spent the past dozen years frantically reducing the rat population. They also control for feral cats and offer free neutering of pet cats belonging to Fatu Hiva’s few hundred human inhabitants.

Elsewhere in the Marquesas, BirdLife is attempting to raise $3.25 million to eliminate rats — and in one location, cats — from seven uninhabited islands. This complex operation, which would involve, in part, dropping rodenticide from the air, stands to benefit several rare birds, from the Marquesas Monarch and Marquesas Ground-Dove to the Phoenix Petrel and Polynesian Storm-Petrel.

“The success of these operations are 90 percent in the preparation,” says Steve Cranwell, BirdLife International’s invasive species manager, who points out that BirdLife has already rid over 30 Pacific islands of non-native rodents. “All scenarios are identified and prepared for before the operation commences, so there are no surprises once it commences.”

How to help: To support invasive-species control on Fatu Hiva, donate to the Société d’Ornithologie de Polynésie, a BirdLife partner. To fund restoration of the seven neighboring islands, donate through BirdLife’s Marquesas webpage.

Thanks to its low population and unusual beak, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper has gained a lot of attention in recent years. Photo by Butterfly Hunter/Shutterstock

Spoon-billed Sandpiper

Where it lives: Asia

Estimated population: 400

Resembling any other peep, except with a shovel for a beak, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper breeds on the coastal tundra of northeastern Russia before migrating thousands of miles to its wintering grounds in southern Asia. Probably never common, the bird’s population was in freefall by the year 2000, roughly halving every two years. “Extinction was likely by 2019 without action,” says Nigel Jarrett, conservation breeding manager at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, who initiated a Spoon-billed Sandpiper captive-breeding program in England that just recently hatched its first chicks successfully.

Two main threats needed addressing: Villagers in such countries as Myanmar and Bangladesh were trapping “spoonies” in nets for food, and their migratory stopover sites in the Yellow Sea were being developed.

Though trapping remains an issue, conservationists have lured some subsistence hunters into more sustainable — and more lucrative — jobs. In addition, thanks largely to their lobbying efforts, all major projects to reclaim Yellow Sea mudflats have been halted, Jarrett explains. Conservationists also have been collecting and incubating “spoonie” eggs and then hand-rearing the babies — a process known as “headstarting” — which increases the number of nestlings that survive to adulthood.

All in all, Jarrett estimates that hundreds, if not thousands, of people, from many different countries, engage in Spoon-billed Sandpiper conservation work, including teachers, scientists, celebrities, and politicians. Taken together, their actions have greatly slowed, but so far not stopped, the bird’s decline.

“Saving the ‘spoonie’ does not only save a single species; it is the talisman for a whole flyway,” Jarrett says. “By saving the ‘spoonie,’ we will help 40 million other birds continue their globe-trotting migrations.”

How to help: Donate to Saving the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, a collaboration of organizations working across the species’ flyway.

 This article was first published under the headline “Call to Action” in the November/December 2020 issue of BirdWatching magazine. 

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Jesse Greenspan

Jesse Greenspan is a Berkeley-based freelance journalist who writes about history and the environment. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Scientific American, Audubon, the History Channel, and other outlets.

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